Andre the Giant. Hulk Hogan. The Rock. There’s a moment in professional wrestling that rivals all others in terms of excitement, astonishment and genuine emotion: When a bad guy turns good.
I’ve admittedly fallen out of touch with wrestling since my mid-90s obsession, so I did a little research on wrestlers who have gone from heel (bad guy) to face (good guy). Let me tell you, even without any context whatsoever, my arm hairs stood on end during some of these clips.
If you doubt the power of these character arcs, just look at the tears of joy streaming down this fan’s face when the Lovely Elizabeth runs into the ring to save Macho Man Randy Savage.
Which brings us to the Houston Rockets, one of the most despised NBA teams of the last decade, who have somehow, someway become the scrappy underdog that fans find themselves unwillingly rooting for.
It’s OK to admit it. You’re in a safe space.
Previously viewed as a gimmick franchise that hoped to game the system through newfangled analytics based on the fact that three is, in fact, more than two, the Rockets have come off as smug, whiny and soft to the wider NBA audience. It doesn’t help that they’re led by James Harden, perhaps the league’s most polarizing MVP, whose predictable offensive style tends to breed boredom, frustration and endless Twitter tirades.
But this postseason, something has changed. It was hard to watch Houston’s Game 1 upset over the top-seeded Los Angeles Lakers and not find yourself cheering for the Rockets. Cheering for the Rockets! Man, these really are unprecedented times.
The small-ball Rockets have become a tenacious, hard-working group that wins with its defense rather than simply hoping a barrage of 3-pointers will eventually give them a mathematical advantage. Houston has the best — THE BEST — defensive rating in the playoffs, and that was on full display when it held LeBron James, Anthony Davis and their supporting cast to 97 points in a 15-point Game 1 win.
At times the Lakers trotted out 6-foot-10 Davis alongside 7-foot JaVale McGee while the Rockets had nobody taller than 6-7 on the court. It was quite literally David and Goliath. And nobody roots for Goliath.
Find me one person in this world who isn’t pulling for P.J. Tucker, the Rockets’ 6-foot-5 center who has become one of the best defenders in the NBA through sheer effort and determination after stints in the G League, Israel, Ukraine, Greece, Italy, Puerto Rico and Germany. Giving up five inches, Tucker was the primary defender on Davis in 26 possessions of Game 1. Davis scored zero points, attempted one shot and committed two turnovers.
“I laugh at all the memes and the stuff everybody comes up with,” Tucker said after the game. “But you’ve got to play, man. It’s basketball, you’ve got to play. Yeah, I’m short, but I’m strong and I can move my feet and stay in front of anybody. I’m not going to quit. I’m going to fight every play.”
Then there’s Robert Covington, an undrafted 6-7 forward who turned himself into a first team all-NBA defender after working his way up from the G League. The Rockets re-acquired him in February (he started his career in Houston), and he’s become the essential component of their small-ball experiment because of his unique combination of perimeter defense, shooting and rim protection. What’s he done so far this postseason? He’s only become the first player since 2004 to collect 21 steals and 12 blocks in his first eight games (the other was former Pistons center Ben Wallace), and he’s done all this while hitting an absurd 51 percent of his 3-pointers.
The list of rags-to-riches stories goes on. Danuel House went undrafted, with multiple G League stints before finding a home in Houston. Jeff Green, viewed as a perennial underachiever, has thrived since being picked up by the Rockets off the scrap heap after he was waived by the Jazz. Ben McLemore failed as the Sacramento Kings’ No. 7 overall pick, but has become a key contributor for Houston this season. Not to mention coach Mike D’Antoni, who began his coaching career in Italy and is arguably one of the most affable people on the planet, sports or otherwise.
And then we get to the stars. Say what you will about Russell Westbrook, but it’s hard to hate a guy who plays that hard. Sure his antics might get a bit tiresome, but you know he’s going to provide maximum effort for every second he’s on the court. I knew Houston had flipped the script when Westbrook denied Danny Green from shooting a 3-pointer after the whistle and I reacted with a smile rather than a scoff.
“We not going no extra shots, he can shoot those shots tomorrow before the game,” Westbrook said. “At least me personally, I don’t wanna give no advantage no nothing. Let them know that we here and every time they shoot the ball we gonna be right there.”
Westbrook has also changed up the predictable dribble-until-the-end-of-the-shot-clock offense that the Rockets became so fond of over the past several years. They finished the regular season with the second-fastest pace in the NBA after moseying their way to 27th last year. He even takes a mid-range jumper from time to time, a benchable offense in the pre-Westbrook days.
Even Harden, who will no doubt have haters until the day he retires, is starting to become less of a heel. He had a dreadful offensive performance in Game 7 against the Oklahoma City Thunder in the first round, but hustled to make a game-saving block on the human fireball Luguentz Dort to ensure the Rockets advanced. Lack of defense used to be the main non-aesthetic criticism of Harden, but he’s turned himself into one of the best statistical defenders in the league on a team that is now one of the league’s stingiest.
I mean, listen to this and tell me it couldn’t be the final speech from a coach played by Mark Wahlberg to his disillusioned team in the next sappy, heartfelt sports movie.
“I don’t know why people keep saying we’re small. I don’t care if you’re 7 feet. If you don’t have heart, it doesn’t matter. If you don’t have a dog in you, it doesn’t matter.”
“Rocket Men,” coming to theaters and VOD this fall.
Combine all of their personnel with the fact that they’re going up against big bad LeBron with the big bad Lakers, and the Rockets have achieved the unthinkable: They’ve actually become likable.
No matter when this playoff run ends for them, that’s certainly a surprising accomplishment.
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